The Baltimore Ravens were the messengers and the direct message they sent to the Patriots in January was it was time to let go of the past or become part of it.
The 33-14 beatdown that Baltimore laid on the Patriots last January in the AFC playoffs shook Fort Foxborough to its core, the Ravens providing a rude requiem for the Team of the Decade.
Two months later, speaking at the NFL owners' meetings, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was still beside himself about the Baltimore blowout. He called it "really one of the most frustrating moments I've had since owning the franchise" and said he couldn't ever remember his team appearing to be "so non-competitive."
"Let me tell you, that really shook us all up," said Kraft, back in March. "That Baltimore [game]. I know what it did to me. That was the worst feeling that I could remember in a long time ...That was bad."
It was and it led to a lot of soul-searching, a locker room makeover, and some rather spartan redecorating of the halls of Gillette Stadium. Coach Bill Belichick basically decided he would rather reboot with a group of young but obedient football players than cast his lot with Hessian veterans looking for a ring while trying to extend a run that had run its course. So far, it looks like the right move as the precocious Patriots are 3-1.
The bullies from Baltimore are back in the Patriots' backyard this Sunday, and it's time to find out just how far the Patriots have come in the renovation process and how much remains for them to do to return to their championship form. Turning back the clock has been all the rage this week with the return of Deion Branch, but no one wants to repeat the past against the Ravens.
In one man's opinion, the Ravens are the best team in the AFC, even without sui generis safety Ed Reed. They're fierce, physical, talented and well-coached. By the way, great nugget in Sports Illustrated about the fact that it was Belichick who recommended the Ravens hire John Harbaugh.
This game is going to be kind of like the new Patriots playing the old Patriots. The Ravens can beat you playing your game or playing theirs. Take your pick, and either way they'll try to beat you up in the process.
The Ravens know the Patriots want revenge for the January massacre and their attitude is pretty much, "bring it on."
"I think it has to be in the back of their head," said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who tormented the Patriots. "Obviously, because what we did last year was uncommon for that kind of team. We went up there, we dominated them. We were hungry. We still are hungry, because the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl, and we have yet to do that. ...A lot of things have changed over there, but overall, we know what Bill Belichick stands for. He’s a great coach, and he’s going to build that team around team unity."
If the Patriots win this game, then the expectations for this season have to be raised, the learning curve has been accelerated. If they lose a close game, and go facemask to facemask with the Ravens for 60 minutes, then it's a sign of progress, a character-builder for a team feeling around for its identity. If they're abused like they were in January, then it's a sign that there is a lot of work to be done before the Patriots can regain AFC eminence, and that the most consistent aspect of a team that relies on so many first, second, and third-year players is its inconsistency.
While most of the focus on Sunday will be on how the Randy Moss-less offense fares, the reality is that this is more of a crucible for the coming-of-age New England defense. It was going to be tough to score points against the Ravens even with Moss. Their defense is just that good, and it hasn't allowed more than two touchdowns in any game this season.
The question about these Patriots is whether they are equipped to win a 17-14 game or a 20-17 game? I'm not sure we know that yet, but Baltimore should give us an idea.
Patriots defenders better buckle their chin straps extra tight. The Ravens rushed for 234 yards against the Patriots in that playoff game. They're coming off a 233-yard rushing effort against the Denver Broncos and old friend Josh McDaniels. It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to know that the Ravens are going to run right at the Patriots and see if they'll hold up or fold up like a beach chair.
Lost in the euphoria of the win over the Dolphins was the fact that the Patriots allowed 4.8 yards per carry to the Dolphins. They've allowed at least 4.3 yards per carry in each of their last three games. The indelible memory from New England's ignominious postseason exit is Rice busting through the line like a sprinter coming out of the blocks for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco only had to throw 10 passes all day.
Stop the run, and the Patriots have a chance to stop the Ravens. Get run over and it's a replay.
The Patriots have every reason to feel good about what happened in Miami. It was as complete a performance as the team has put together in quite some time. It was a sign of progress and improvement. But they're moving up a class in competition this week.
Win this game and it's the Patriots that are sending the message this time.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.